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Cardinals spring training

St. Louis Cardinals chaplain Darrin Patrick holds a Sunday morning chapel service for players, coaches and staff outside the clubhouse batting cages during St. Louis Cardinals spring training on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016, at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla. Photo by Chris Lee, clee@post-dispatch.com

JUPITER, Fla. • As he promenaded about the Cardinals clubhouse Sunday, this guy had some sort of a magnetism to him, like a popular ex-ballplayer, back to see the boys. But I didn’t recognize this guy from the mental packs and stacks of baseball cards in my brain. Still, the current Cardinals seemed so comfortable chatting with him; clubhouse employees, too.

Who is this guy?

“We’ve got strength coaches, we’ve got hitting coaches, we’ve got pitching coaches,” he’d tell me later. “I just want to be the guy who’s kind of a spiritual coach, really.”

His name is Darrin Patrick, and he’s important to your favorite players.

He’s the Cardinals’ chaplain, and he’s carved a niche for himself here. He’s a disarming dude the players relate to and still admire. He wears jeans. He sports stylish gray glasses that complement his salt-and-pepper stubble.

The pastor purposely places “man” and “dude” into his dialogue, to personalize his message. He tells them that he’s “the guy who doesn’t need anything from you,” a refreshing notion for players who are constantly tugged. And he’s essential, because he provides balance for the ballplayers.

“I can go through, locker by locker, and not every single guy but quite a few, he’s been there for,” manager Mike Matheny said. “Life happens to these guys. I think people forget that. I think they see them with this persona and they physically look like they have it all together, and emotionally and mentally have it together. But in the meanwhile, we’ve got guys going through rough stuff. Just like everybody else. They’re not immune to it.”

Baseball is a religion, some say. But religion in baseball is tricky. There is a fine line with it all, especially with so many mixed beliefs out there. Clearly, as seen Sunday, when numerous Cardinals sat at picnic tables to hear Patrick speak, religion is important to players. And many fans get fevered about athletes who are also faith-based, for there’s a connection they feel. But there are also times when an athlete can come off as judgmental, as if his or her faith makes someone better, or more complete, than someone not of that faith.

But when it comes to the Cardinals players, it’s very simple: Their lives are complicated and pressure-packed, and Patrick calms them.

“A lot of people will read this article and go, ‘Let’s leave baseball to baseball, and you guys need to be worrying about work,’” pitcher Adam Wainwright said. “But what you have to understand is, we work on Sundays, and for people who find their faith important, our time to then go to church is the chaplain. …

“It’s not an easy job to sit down in front of 20 professional athletes who have large egos and lots of different problems of their own and guard themselves against a lot of different people trying to get into their lives and talk to them. It’s not an easy job to speak into people’s lives, and he’s found a way to do that.”

Patrick himself was a ballplayer, a good one, at the high school level. He played catcher, loved Ted Simmons. At 45, Patrick is a tall man and a strapping man, so he visually fits in around the clubhouse. Another way he connects to players is through his honesty. Of his high school days in Illinois, “I was a mess,” he admitted. “All I wanted to do was have sex with girls, get high and not work. I was an athlete, but I was also the druggie athlete guy. So I could relate to both sides. I know what it’s like to live on the other side of the tracks, so I have zero judgment for people who are struggling in any area of their life, because we’re all in a process. And that’s really my story. I’m just trying to help people flourish, while respecting their journey and process, and at the same time trying to call people to be what they were created to be. ...

“What does that look like? For this season, it might be the dude’s marriage. His dealing with anxiety. His spiritual development. It’s really case by case, year by year, player by player.”

One Cardinals player had a parent who was very sick, so Patrick visited the parent at the hospital and prayed with the family. Another Cardinal, Patrick explained, was “just wrestling with marriage issues, you know?” So Patrick offered advice and an ear. When former Cardinal Shelby Miller got married, Miller asked Patrick to officiate. And perhaps the most common way Patrick impacts the Cardinals is through talks about family, money and boundary issues. How does a player honor those he loves and financially aid those he loves, without feeling overwhelmed or off-put by the whole dynamic?

“Somebody said, ‘Leadership is disappointing people at a rate that they can tolerate,’” Patrick explained with a chuckle.

Now, bad teams have chaplains, too. Praying or dissecting prayer doesn’t make you hit a curveball better. But in an age where, as we know, players have more demands than ever before — physically, mentally, financially, psychologically — it seems that Patrick is a nice fit for this clubhouse. He’s definitely comfortable in there, and the Cardinals are comfortable with him.

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Benjamin Hochman is a sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch